Photos by Brianna Couture
When one of Angel Gonzalez’s oldest friends approached him about possibly investing in a new fitness trend back in 2011, Gonzalez didn’t hesitate to sign on. “I’m always down for an investment. If there is some money to be made, let’s give it a shot.” The only catch was Gonzalez had never heard of the new trend, a blend of personal training and competitive fitness called CrossFit.
Since its inception in 2000, CrossFit has become one of the fastest growing fitness sensations on the planet. If you’ve never seen a CrossFit competition, or tried a WOD (“workout of the day”), imagine your basic day at the gym. Throw in dashes of weightlifting, gymnastics, running and rowing, hone the resulting mix with a focus on functionality and short, intense workouts, and then add a borderline-fanatic social community. Voila! That’s CrossFit. Thanks to the appeal of this unique blend, today there are more than 13,000 registered CrossFit gyms (or “boxes,” as they call them), and over 100,000 people have been certified to coach with countless more “athletes” (the CrossFit term for anyone partaking) all around the world.
Gonzalez, a T10 para and wheelchair athlete, only needed to attend one competition to understand the appeal. It was easy to envision all of his wheelchair-using friends getting into CrossFit alongside the obviously growing number of nondisabled athletes. The business prospects and the personal prospects — a new, fun way to work out — were both alluring, but again there was a catch. “There was no such thing as adaptive CrossFit back then. I was trying to find people to connect with to bounce ideas off and there was nobody. Like, no one.”
Gonzalez did not let that deter him. Over the last six years, he and a small group of other committed athletes have worked to develop adaptive CrossFit into a vibrant, growing community. Today, Gonzalez owns his own box in Houston, Texas, helps organize national and regional adaptive CrossFit competitions and travels the country teaching the principles to CrossFit instructors, therapists, adaptive athletes and anyone who is interested. “Now, if you look at Instagram or go online, there are adaptive athletes doing CrossFit all over,” he says. “It has exploded.”
Starting From Scratch
When Gonzalez first started searching for details on adaptive CrossFit, the only wheelchair specific content he could find came by way of a Canadian wheelchair user named Chris Stoutenburg. An acclaimed wheelchair basketball player with two Paralympic medals — gold and silver — Stoutenburg had recently turned to CrossFit after burning out on wheelchair basketball and deciding regular gym work “just wasn’t cutting it.” The variation in CrossFit WODs and the emphasis on functional movements appealed to him. “You’re never doing the same thing day after day,” he explains. “Every day is a big challenge to do all sorts of different movements, rep schemes, ways to approach fitness through endurance, and weight lifting. And all of that is a much better way to train than just doing a bit of weight training, a bit of cardio. This is never dull. Every day you’re taking on a new challenge.”
Along with a friend who had just opened his own box, Stoutenburg started adapting workouts and movements for a pair of local amputees. “We just kind of started from scratch,” he says. “We figured we’ll try a bunch of stuff, stay true to what we want to accomplish and make it up as we go.” That meant focusing on mimicking the functional impact of exercises, not the way the movements looked. “We tried to make sure the work related to being able to do things better in your everyday activities.” As an example, Stoutenburg substituted an adapted floor-to-chair transfer for a burpee — an exercise that is sort-of a jump from a push-up to a standing position — pointing out it developed the same strengths through the process of getting up when you are down on the floor.
Stoutenburg posted videos of his adaptations on YouTube. When Gonzalez found them he saw a kindred soul and the two began a friendship. They began sharing and critiquing each other’s video workouts, laying a foundation for other wheelchair athletes. “It was always a work in progress,” says Gonzalez, “trying to figure out how can we make it efficient for us, how can we make it more challenging, how can we show the next adaptive athletes what we’re doing and how to do it right without getting hurt?”
As athletes themselves, Stoutenburg and Gonzalez are all too aware of the extra wear and tear wheelchair users are exposed to. They emphasize stability work and building core strength, and each has his own rules on what they will or won’t teach. Stoutenburg shies away from muscle-ups, a CrossFit mainstay that blends a pullup and dip, because he believes it adds stress to wheelchair users’ already taxed shoulders. For wheelchair users, Stoutenburg has set up protocols to ensure athletes don’t break their chairs by exceeding the weight limit, or their bones when they attempt to lift more than they can handle.
With more and more adaptations to share, and a growing community of people with all types of disabilities, Stoutenburg launched WheelWOD.com in 2014. The site offers free daily programming, including how-to videos for both seated and standing athletes, listings of upcoming events and more — effectively serving as a hub for wheelchair users interested in CrossFit. “We’re working on a full video description of standards and progressions to get to those standards,” he says. “We’ve got a whole library and films that are just being put into production.”
Spreading the Word
While Stoutenburg and Gonzalez were ramping up their efforts, others were also pushing to expand CrossFit’s audience to people with disabilities. David “Chef” Wallach, a CrossFit owner and coach in Virginia, started the first CrossFit competition for adaptive athletes, the Working Wounded Games. The success of the Games inspired him to start Crossroads Adaptive Athletic Alliance, a nonprofit aimed at educating instructors about adaptive CrossFit, connecting the adaptive community and spreading the word about the sport’s benefits. In addition to the Working Wounded Games, Crossroads organizes instructional seminars about adaptive CrossFit all over the globe. Stoutenburg and Gonzalez are among the many coaches who travel to lead the seminars.
Sara Olsen, a board member of Crossroads and a coach herself, says the need for the seminars became evident as the adaptive athletes connected. “You had these pockets of people figuring things out either by themselves or with their coaches, and a lot of people coming up with similar ideas but nobody to share them with,” she says. “We can only do so much as a single nonprofit, but the more people we teach, the more likely that these pockets of places where there are adaptive athletes are going to grow to whole towns and states where accessibility is the norm. That’s really kind of our goal.”
Since Crossroads became a certified 501(c)(3) in 2014, Olsen guesses they have conducted around 20 seminars, drawing a mix of trainers, adaptive athletes, therapists and box owners. Each seminar has at least two teachers for anywhere from 18 to 40 students. The seminars are free for adaptive athletes, and trainers receive certification and continuing education credits towards their CrossFit trainer status.
“The more people we educate and expose to all of the types of athletes that are out there, the more common it becomes and the less intimidated coaches are when somebody wheels into the gym,” says Olsen. “The more we get out on social media and through word of mouth or other specific networks, the less intimidating it becomes to athletes, too.”
While athletes today come from all disabilities, from SCI to amputee to ALS and CP, in the early days wheelchair users competing from a seated position were scant. Olsen estimates that the percentage of wheelchair-using athletes has grown to almost 15-20 percent since Crossroads started teaching seminars.
Gonzalez has led many of Crossroads’ seminars, including the first one ever (he insisted it be held at his box) and loves being involved. “Who better to get your info from than adaptive athletes themselves? This way it’s not somebody doing all the seminars who’s done a bunch of research and just repeats what they read — it’s actually hands-on coaches who work with adaptive athletes or are adaptive athletes themselves.”
In addition to seminars, the number of competitive adaptive competitions has grown, expanding the sport’s visibility each time. Stoutenburg has helped organize an adaptive division at Wodapalooza, one of the sports bigger annual events, and has also run an online adaptive version of the CrossFit Open — CrossFit’s equivalent of the Olympics — for the last three years.
“’I had nine countries represented in the Open last year and 100 or so athletes,” says Stoutenburg. “I would say worldwide there’s close to 500 athletes out there that are competing in some version of adaptive cross fit or something along those lines. There’s tons more coming out of the woodwork every day. I get messages from WODworks every day asking, ‘I’m just starting, where do I go?’”
The First Rule of CrossFit
Social media is one of the factors helping propel the growth of adaptive CrossFit. Online commenters have often twisted the famous quote from the movie Fight Club to poke fun at the exuberance of CrossFit athletes, saying, “The first rule of CrossFit is that you always talk about CrossFit.” That rule has held true for adaptive CrossFit. “If you look at Instagram now or you go to WheelWOD, there are adaptive athletes all over, sharing photos and stories about how it has transformed their lives,” says Gonzalez.
Stoutenburg says it’s easy to identify the newcomers by their social media feeds. “Every social media post will be about something they’ve done in CrossFit. The rest of the stuff in their life seems to fade out of the picture for a little bit. It doesn’t matter if its adaptive or nondisabled, that’s just what it is.”
Why the overwhelming appeal?
“You start to do things that you’ve never been able to do, and I think that’s why it’s so popular,” he says. “It’s just mind blowing that they are doing things that they never thought they would do or ever try to do. You get your ass handed to you on a daily basis and you come back for more.”
That’s almost exactly how it worked for Vanessa Cantu. Cantu was paralyzed at 15 in a 1998 car accident. An active high school athlete before, the paralysis and additional injuries led her down a rough road where she struggled with drugs and abusive relationships for the next 15 years. Three years ago, at the age of 30, Cantu sobered up around the birth of her child and started CrossFit at a local Texas box owned by her sister’s boyfriend, Angel Gonzalez.
Cantu hadn’t used a wheelchair for years, having progressed to walking with crutches after years using KFOs and AFOs, but borrowed one upon realizing that was the only way she could compete. After some training she entered her first competition with high hopes. “I got my ass whooped,” she says. “I realized how tough everything was, but I was also quickly hooked, to the community, to the people that were there, and I realized that I could do everything they did, I just needed to work at it.”
Seeing and interacting with other people with disabilities and working with coaches that believed in her helped Cantu change her life. “It started with someone else putting that effort and time into me for me to even start believing in myself,” she says. “CrossFit exposed me to something different, something that I could relate to and that I just didn’t see on a day-to-day basis.”
Gonzalez and others say their ultimate dream is an adaptive division at the CrossFit games and true integration into the CrossFit world. Having helped with the logistics behind the Working Wounded Games and the day-to-day of Crossroads, Olsen knows the complexities involved in attaining that goal. “Do I think there’s potential for it? Sure. Do I think it’s in the near term? Probably not without hiring somebody with that expertise on their staff to help with the programming.”
Stoutenburg agrees. “Right now my focus is on just getting more people involved,” he says.
How to Get Your CrossFit On
With CrossFit boxes popping up everywhere and the growth of adaptive sites online like WheelWOD, it’s easier than ever to get your adaptive WODs on. Vanessa Cantu advises, “Don’t be afraid to just take the first step in finding a CrossFit box near you and talk to the owner or the coach. More than likely they’re willing and wanting to help, they’ve just never been approached about adaptive CrossFit. And if they’re hesitant and don’t want to help, go to the next box. There’s going to be somebody who wants to take advantage of that situation and learn from it.”
The website for Crossroads Adaptive Athletic Alliance also features a map of all the boxes that have attended its adaptive seminars and signed on to the organization’s mission statement. Most boxes charge between $100-200 per month for unlimited access and many offer deals and incentives for newcomers.